Joan Sutherland - A Portrait
see end of review for details
rec. 1959/60
REGIS RRC3013 [3 CDs: 70.15 + 52.27 + 49.49]
This set documents the brilliance and fluency of the young Joan Sutherland’s performances. All made in the period 1959/61 when the singer was in her early thirties, they show what an outstanding technique she combined with the famous evenness of tone all the way through the voice. Granted, there is nothing here to match the vividness, acuity and range of colour that Callas brought to these roles. Then again, Sutherland mercifully lacks Callas’s hollow tone and struggle to master her voice.
What is remarkable about the excerpts from Acis and Galatea is how acceptable they are to a modern ear, though we still get the very solid, pure legato classical string tone. Sutherland’s diction is exemplary for its clarity, In fact that is true of most pieces in this set. Few suffer from the oddly occluded diction that pervaded her recordings later on.
Boult’s speeds are quite acceptable, so we get a Galatea of great lyric beauty and technical freedom. Peter Pears’ Acis is not in the same class, but he brings his customary intelligence to the role. Owen Brannigan was sui generis as Polyphemus even though, here, we don’t get O ruddier than the cherry.
The excerpts from Messiah are done in a similar style and are generally classy; Boult used a new edition which did away with the later additions to the score. However I know that my redeemer liveth is done at a rather slow tempo with Sutherland extruding the tone in a manner which verges on the lugubrious. Her ornamentation is rather lavish, but her trills are superb.
Many of Handel’s operas were written for the finest singers of the day. With Sutherland’s account of Alcina we get one of the 20th century’s finest vocalists in a role which suited her. These two arias are recorded with Sir Anthony Lewis, rather than from the later Richard Bonynge recording. Lewis opts for stylistically more correct speeds than Bonynge and Sutherland is at her freshest and most winning.
The Handel disc concludes with an account of Sutherland in Let the Bright Seraphim which is, I think, the one from The Art of the Prima Donna.
One of the frustrations of this set is that the documentation as to what the tracks are is very scanty. The notes say that the third disc in the set consists of excerpts from The Art of the Prima Donna, but gives no source for the second disc, Sutherland singing Verdi and Bellini, though these too appear to be from the same origin. For some reason, Regis has decided to deconstruct the arias from The Art of the Prima Donna so that CD 2 has Verdi and Bellini and CD 3 everything else except Handel. Such things might niggle, but mean that on the second CD we can concentrate on Sutherland singing Verdi and Bellini.
For me, one the advantages of hearing these discs is that the conductor isn’t Richard Bonynge. As far as Sutherland is concerned there is a wonderful freshness and attack about everything, a glorious fluidity and facility. Her excerpts from I Puritani and La Sonnambula are suitably light, but there is a depth and darkness as well to the Norma and to the Verdi singing.
In The Willow Song and in one or two other moments in the Verdi extracts there are hints of the spinto Sutherland, the sort of singer she might have developed into if the famous Lucia had been followed by Lady Macbeth - as Tullio Serafin wanted.
On the last disc, Mozart’s Marten aller Arten is the least successful item, but that is on an absolute scale; by any standards these recordings are amazing. In fact, listening to them is a trifle depressing because Sutherland never did anything quite as good again. On an aria by aria basis, many here are preferable to the ones on later issues.
There is not only technical facility here. Sutherland varies colour and tone so that each item is characteristically shaded and affected. One could listen for hours to the trills, staccatos and scales in The Jewel Song; but this is also a very real Marguerite.
If you have only one Sutherland recording, then you must have The Art of the Prima Donna. If you don’t have a Sutherland recording, then you must have The Art of the Prima Donna. If you buy The Art of the Prima Donna then you get words and a good pair of articles in the CD booklet. If you buy this set, you get rather poorer documentation with no words and just a single article, but you also get substantial excerpts of Sutherland singing Handel. The choice is yours.  

Robert Hugill

By any standards these recordings are amazing. 

Track listing
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Acis and Galatea (excerpts) (1)
Rejoice greatly (Messiah) (2)
How beautiful are the feet (Messiah) (2)
I know that my redeemer liveth (Messiah) (2)
If God be for us (Messiah) (2)
Tornami a vagheggiar (Alcina) (3)
Ombre pallide (Alcina) (3)
Let the bright seraphim (Samson) (4)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813 - 1901)
The Willow Song (Otello) (4)
Sempre libera (La Traviata) (4)
Caro Nome (Rigoletto) (4)
Vincenzo BELLINI (1801 - 1835)
Casta Diva (Norma) (4)
Son vergin vezzosa (I Puritani) (4)
Qui la voce (I Puritani) (4)
Come per me sereno (La Sonnambula) (4)
Charles GOUNOD (1818 - 1893)
The Waltz Song (Romeo et Juliet) (4)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791)
Marten aller Arten (Die Enfuhrung aus dem Serail) (4)
Leo DELIBES (1836 - 1891)
The Bell Song (Lakme) (4)
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791 - 1864)
O beau pays (Les Huguenots) (4)
Thomas ARNE (1710 - 1778)
The Soldier Tir’d (Artaxerxes) (4)
Gioachino ROSSINI (1792 - 1898)
Bel raggio lusingher (Semiramide) (4)
Charles GOUNOD
Jewel Song (Faust) (4)
Ambroise THOMAS (1811 - 1896)
The Mad Scene (Hamlet) (4) Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Acis - Peter Pears (tenor) (1); Polyphemus - Owen Brannigan (bass) (1); St Anthony Singers (1); Philomusica of London (1, 3); London Symphony Orchestra (2); Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (4); Sir Adrian Boult (conductor) (1, 2); Sir Anthony Lewis (conductor) (3); Francesco Molinari-Pradelli (conductor) (4)
rec. (1) 1960, (2) 1960, (3) 1959, (4) 1960 The Art of the Primadonna